Review of La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust #1)
Twenty years after the publication of Northern Lights, Philip Pullman returns to his parallel universe to give us the prequel to his best-selling trilogy.
Author: Philip Pullman
Audio Book Read by: Michael Sheen
The first installment of the Book of Dust follows Malcolm Polstead, the son of the keepers of the Trout tavern. He is bright, curious, and – despite only being eleven years old – brave. He and his daemon, Asta, spend their days at Ulvercote Elementary school, helping the nuns of the priory of St Rosamund, and paddling downriver in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage.
This all changes when a mysterious baby, called Lyra, appears at the priory. Several people seem to be looking for this girl and – what’s more – spies seem to be abroad in Port Meadow. Little does Malcolm know that his life and the lives of Lyra, and Alice (the kitchen girl) depend on his beloved canoe – for, the storm of the century is coming.
I loved this novel. It is filled with adventure, world-building, and – importantly – distinctive characters. Malcolm Polstead is an endearing character that shares the reader’s curiosity for the secrets of Pullman’s universe. Beyond the character and the world, I thoroughly enjoyed the metaphors, hidden meanings, and intertextuality that has been woven into the narrative. I believe that La Belle Sauvage can proudly stand alongside the His Dark Materials trilogy.
[Warning: minor spoiler!]
I felt that the book could have benefited from a stronger resolution. There are major unanswered questions at the end of this book. I felt that a lot of the build-up was wasted on a sudden ending. I am the kind of reader that tries to pick up clues in the narrative as I try to work out where the story is headed. There was a some lack of payoff here.
To be fair, this is the first book in a new series. We’ll see what gets revealed in the next installment.
[End of minor spoiler]
Potentially Offensive Content
The novel does not shy away from mature or controversial topics. Much like the Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman highlights the oppressive control of religious institutions. The nefarious agents that pursue Malcolm and Lyra are a powerful and dangerous branch of the Magisterium. While the narrative implies more than it explicitly states, Pullman is known for portraying organised religion in a wicked light.
It must be said that I personally do not have an issue with this. On the contrary, I find it interesting and fresh. However, if you feel that this kind of thing might offend you, consider giving it a skip. Pullman does attempt to balance this, though. The nuns, for example, are kindly souls who are concerned for the safety of the children and the baby.
There is a brief description of a sexual encounter between the antagonist and a novice. While not explicit in the sense of describing body parts, eleven-year-old Malcolm and his daemon vaguely realize what’s happening. There is also an implied rape scene in the latter stages of the book.
Lastly, there are some depictions of violence. Fights, murder, stabbing, and – as mentioned – rape are described. There is mention of blood and – as far as I can remember – two or three incidents of the f-word. Be that as it may, the narrative never strays into (what I consider to be) vulgarity.
I really enjoyed this novel. There is a lot happening here ‘under the hood’, as it were: metaphors abound. The latter half of the novel – in particular – takes on the structure of classic fables. In the tradition of the Grim Tales, Malcolm has to trick his way past something extraordinary in each encounter. His Dark Materials drew on Milton’s Paradise Lost. (This begs for a deeper analysis at a later point).
I felt that the antagonist (in the form of Bonneville) was particularly strong. It is a testament to Pullman’s world building that we are disgusted by the way he treats his daemon, for example. Bonneville inspires fear in the characters as much as he does in the reader. A villain has not scared me in quite a while.
Lastly, the story is a satisfying fantasy adventure story. If you don’t wish to delve into the deeper aspects of this universe, the novel offers a lot of enjoyment. Malcolm and Asta are strong characters that endear the reader with great empathy.
I cannot wait for more, Mr Pullman.
Final Score: 9/10
The gentleman waiting gave him a start, though all he was doing was sitting still by the cold fireplace. Perhaps it was his dæmon, a beautiful silvery spotted leopard, or perhaps it was his dark, saturnine expression; in any event, Malcolm felt daunted, and very young and small. His dæmon, Asta, became a moth.
“Good evening, sir,” he said. “Your Tokay what you ordered. Would you like me to make up the fire? It’s ever so cold in here.”
“Is your name Malcolm?” The man’s voice was harsh and deep.
“Yes, sir. Malcolm Polstead.”
“I’m a friend of Dr. Relf,” said the man. “My name is Asriel.”
– La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman
I was lucky enough to listen to the audio book of this novel. It is brilliantly read by Mr Michael Sheen. Not only is he a great actor, but his voice is able to transport anyone to Pullman’s world. I highly recommend this format.